This was mesquite country, where the dirt-dust soft and light, slipped into every crack and crevice. It left my cameras fighting to open their shutters. The smoke of the campfire absorbed into our bodies.
We had left Friday, March13 for a 30-plus hour car ride, straight on through from Galesburg, Ill. to Tucson, Ariz. We pulled up to a church for our first night’s stay and training. The church had a strong history. It was central in the New Sanctuary Movement, which illegally housed unrecognized refugees from central and South America.
At the training we covered the history of migration through the area, how it was a natural phenomena of many of the people that used to live in the area before the wall was established and the border went under such high security. We were told that the migrants were revolutionaries. They were physically going against a law that many found unjust. Many labeled the immigrants coming here as stresses on society that are here to steal their jobs, the view of them as revolutionaries opened my eyes to the situation, and has stuck with me since.
The next morning we drove out to the camp, Carl’s Camp. It was about an hour ride away from the church, two miles from the nearest town, Arivaca, and about 12 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Border Patrol was always driving by the camp.
Arivaca was a one-road-down-the-middle kind of town. We would often stop in there after patrols to grab a taco, an ice cream, a Gatorade. Once when we were visiting, there were fathers and sons practicing roping. The son would spin the rope above his head, focus in and lasso his dad by the legs when the man would jump into the air. I tried to give the son a thumbs up or some sort of gesture, but it turned out to be more confusing than helpful between both parties so I walked away to grab more electrolytes.
Once I had come out of the convenience store, Gatorade in hand, I saw a border patrol pickup truck pull out of the parking lot, drive 15 feet or less and pull into another parking lot across from another convenience store. The agent got out of the car, walked up to a young Latino man on the phone, say a few words to him and arrest him. It was so quickly executed, as if it had been a role-play. The agent put the young Latino in the back of his truck and called for another border patrol agent to come to the scene. Jonathan, an EMT in our group, and I walked up to the agent and the young man. We tried to explain that we were medically trained and should look at the young man before he is taken away, I tried in Spanish to offer him some water, but the agent denied us, and our efforts of good will.
The borderlands are not like the rest of the country. Out here everyone knows who the border patrol is, what its trucks and choppers sound like from a distance. When you hear the chopper there is no question, it’s the border patrol scanning with giant spotlights the land below. They are looking for wandering groups of migrants who scatter when the light is cast on them. The double choppers hover and stretch over the mountains like buzzards. The border patrol has the authority to land on your property, to search your house without a warrant, to come onto your land in their hunt for migrants.
Our own prescription for migrants was what led us down, piled into the Lakis rentals, during spring break. We were volunteering for No Mas Muertes, No More Deaths. No Mas Muertes provides food, water and medical attention to the migrants traveling up into the US. Each morning and each afternoon after lunch we would split up into patrols and drive out to our site. We packed out cans of chicken noodle soup, Gatorade, granola bars, crackers, medical packs, GPSs and gallon jugs of water. The gallon jugs of water and cans of chicken noodle we would leave at certain places along the trails we were following.
You could tell where a group of migrants had stopped to rest, and this is where we left the supplies. The migrants’ camps along the trail were littered with water jugs, electrolyte bottles, clothes, backpacks, toothbrushes and cans of Red Bull. These sites are of particular annoyance to ranchers whose land the migrants travel over.
We would hike the trails, calling out “Somos voluntarios, tenemos agua, comida, y atención medica, quermos ayudarle!” We are volunteers, we have water, food, and medical supplies, we want to help you. After that we would stand quietly, we heard the wind whip through the valley as we listened for a response.
No Mas Muertes is stationed on both sides of the border. There are two camps, Bird camp and Carl’s camp on the U.S. side. Another station has been set up in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The station is set up right next to the border, ready for the migrants after they are dropped off by border patrol.
Here the Nogales volunteers find the migrants have lost their belongings, even their shoelaces, they may be missing family members, and often have no idea how to get back home. The station there attends to medical concerns, provides food, water and clothing, and gives information on how to get back home. This station has also been documenting the personal accounts of the migrants while they were being detained by the border patrol. As part of border patrol’s “total deterrence policy,” many of the migrants were denied food and water, at most a package of crackers and a jug to be shared between all the migrants that were in custody. Law allows for a migrant to be held for up to 72 hours before being released.
Some migrants reported being abused or seeing others abused. Because there is no specific law regarding how migrants held for under 72 hours should be treated, Border Patrol has its own policy for what goes on. The policy idea is of “total deterrence,” that is whatever it takes to convince migrants that it is too risky or painful to cross the border. The wall the U.S. government has built does not extend the full length of the border.
Instead it was built in frequented areas where migrants were crossing over. The wall stops as the landscape turns to mountains. The idea is to use the mountains as a natural boundary of deterrence. The wall, and the increased security, forces many migrants into the mountains. This is not to say the wall completely stop migrants from crossing over where it is built. It takes less than 30 seconds for someone to put up a ladder climb over and stash the ladder back in the bushes.
Another part of the wall is built using tall poles. This section is meant mainly to prevent the cars used in drug trafficking from crossing. However, the drug traffickers have found ways around this with tunnels, ramps that allow the cars to drive over the wall, and implanted hinged doors that seem to disappear into the wall when they are closed. The wall has come to represent more of a symbol of power, rather than being an effective tool.
To avoid being caught or getting lost in the mountains the migrants have turned to a new system. To cross the border now the migrants hire a coyote, a leader who ideally knows the route across and will lead them there for a fee. The coyotes charge by the head and are not known for their sympathy. It has been reported that some coyotes rob their parties, and rape the women they are traveling with. Women are suggested to take birth control before they cross for the risk of rape is so high.
Rape is something that could not be ignored by our camp. Not but a 15 minute hike from where we were sleeping was a site of repeated sexual violence. It was called “the Rape Tree.” The tree was located down in a wash, that is, in a dry riverbed, not visible from the bank above. You have to climb down into the wash to see it. Bras and underwear hang from the mesquite’s branches. And underneath at the base of the tree were pressed down clothes, blankets and backpacks. This tree had become a symbol of domination; of the power a coyote has over the group.
The mountains are hard and the desert hot. There is no way to possibly carry enough water with you to cross. Along the trails we would see empty electrolyte bottles, water jugs, and Red Bull. The coyotes encourage the migrants to drink caffeine believing it will help push them and keep them going. Sometimes migrants get left behind, their group walks to quickly for them to keep up, they are sick or injured, or they get lost in the night. This is not a simple hike. Getting separated can be a sure death sentence.
Once a No Mas Muertes patrol went out and found a migrant along the trail. He spoke English and they sat down together to talk.
“Why are you out here?” asked the man.
“Because we have to be,” replied the patrol leader. He believed he had to be out here, out in the desert giving humanitarian support, because no one else was.
“No you don’t,” the man responded. “I have to be out here, you are free to go wherever you like.”
Out in the desert, in the face of such stark reality, privilege straight up confronts you. Along the border you can’t help but recognize your privilege as a U.S. citizen. Privilege lets you have access; if you have it, it lets you walk freely. Our privilege radiated off us. We were college students with the ability to find funding to travel from the Midwest to the Southwest. We could walk right across the Mexican border, and coming back was a simple flash of the passport.
For me, the real shock of privilege came after I met Bernardo. I was with my patrol driving to our trailhead when we saw a man wave to us as he walked down the side of the road.
“Should we pull over, do you think he was a migrant?”
“I don’t know, I don’t want to profile him.”
“We should stop anyways, at least to see if he wants some water.”
We turned the car around and pulled up next to the man. It turns out he was migrating, coming up from Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico and heading to Los Angeles Calif. He was about a 10-hour drive from L.A., and heading in the wrong direction. He told us his coyote had robbed him, and that the group left him behind in the dark as they hiked faster than him. He had tried to flag down a Border Patrol helicopter but they didn’t see him. That night he found what appeared to be an abandoned ranch where he was able to fill up his water bottle from the hose and slept in the hammock, it was a very cold night.
He was walking along the road now to find a town where he could call someone to pick him up. Our patrol sat down with him and explained where he was. We gave him water and Gatorade and some food. The EMT of the group checked his feet for blisters. Bernardo also said he might be coming down with a cold. He wanted to go home. Then he asked us to call Border Patrol.
I was shocked, not the kind of shock from surprise, but the kind that sets in with a touch of despair. We told him what might happen if he is taken into their custody, but he said he was more worried that a rancher might shoot him, than of Border Patrol. So we called. Even if we don’t want to, we call because that choice is left up to whomever we’re assisting.
Bernardo was crossing the border hoping he would find work in L.A. with his brothers. His wife and two daughters at home had asked him not to go, that it was dangerous. One daughter, in college, said she would drop out and get a job to help support the family, if only he wouldn’t cross the border.
Her father is crossing through harsh conditions to try and provide her with higher education. My father would never have to do this. He has a job, I receive student loans, I have a job set up with the school. My education will be paid for and no one will have to risk his or her life to make it happen.
His daughter and I are no different in most respects. We both come from a loving family, we’re both intelligent, and we are both currently leading lives in the world of academia. What separates us is merely my birth into one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and the privilege that that birth comes with. I did not have to work harder than her to get into school; I just had to be born.
Under the partial shade of a mesquite we waited with Bernardo until Border Patrol arrived. We were trying to encourage him to eat and drink fluids; worried he might be deprived of them in BP custody. Border Patrol pulled up. The agent walked up and Bernardo went in for a handshake. The agent looked at Bernardo and completely ignored him. Instead the agent started going through Bernardo’s belongings. He examines the things carefully, picking bits of brush from Bernardo’s jacket.
Then the agent put him in the back of the vehicle, nicknamed “the dogcatcher” because of its small compartment in the back where there migrants are kept. Then they drove off. It is unclear what happened with Bernardo. He could have been put into Operation Streamline, a program that arrests and prosecutes migrants trying to cross the border illegally, the migrants can be held up to 180 days and their deportation is set immediately after they are released. He might have been kept in custody, or he might have been dropped off at the border in Nogales immediately.
We waved good-bye, and wished him suerte, luck.